The Gemara recounts how the Sages told Rabbi Zeira, “One should always reject with the left hand and embrace with the right.” (Sotah 47b). Rabbi Zeira, however, preferred to focus on the sin, not the sinner. He had faith that even a hardcore sinner, even a hoodlum, who is wicked towards G-d and wicked towards people, has a very positive seed hidden away in his soul, which over time can eventually overpower all evil and hooliganism. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 37b) quotes Reish Lakish, who taught, “Even the empty among you are as full of virtuous deeds as a pomegranate.” Rabbi Zeira went even further and deduced the notion of highlighting the positive even in negative people, from the following pasuk: “And he (Yitzchak Avinu) smelled the pleasant aroma of his garments” (B’reishis 27:27) – Do not read it as ‘garments’ (b’gadav) but rather as ‘traitors’ (bogdav).”
No one should paint gangsters as heroes. They are lawless people who commit crimes and heinous acts of evil. There are few excuses for the behavior of the “Jewish Mob” back in the 1920s and 1930s. The best-known Jewish gangsters – Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and David Berman – were involved in many illegal schemes, including numbers rackets, gambling, and loansharking, etc. Jewish mobsters were a snapshot in time (in the 1920s and 1930s) and did not continue their “legacy” after that one period, while Italian (and other) gangsters were known to have handed their “profession” to each succeeding generation.
But they were good for one thing: protecting other Jews. During the rise of American Nazism in the 1930s and when the State of Israel was being founded, between 1945 and 1948, they proved to be staunch defenders of the Jewish people. Perhaps it was their one redeeming quality, the Jewish spark that remained in their souls. None of these men were religiously observant. They rarely attended services, although they did support congregations financially. They did not keep kosher or send their children to Jewish day schools. However, at crucial moments, they protected other Jews – in America and around the world.
The 1930s was a period of rampant antisemitism in America, particularly in the Midwest. Father Coughlin (the Radio Priest in Detroit) and William Dudley Pelley of Minneapolis, among others, openly called for Jews to be driven from positions of responsibility, if not from the country itself. Organized Brown Shirts in New York and Silver Shirts in Minneapolis outraged and terrorized American Jewry. While the older and more respectable Jewish organizations pondered a response that would not alienate non-Jewish supporters, others took matters into their own hands. German-American Bund rallies in the New York City area posed a dilemma for mainstream Jewish leaders. They wanted the rallies stopped but had no legal grounds on which to do so. Finally, a Jewish state judge by the name of Perlman managed to get a message to Meyer Lansky, asking him to disrupt the Bund rallies, with the proviso that Lansky’s henchmen stop short of killing anyone. Enthusiastic for the assignment, Lansky accepted all of Perlman’s terms except one: He would take no money for the work. Lansky was quoted as saying, “I was a Jew and felt for those Jews in Europe who were suffering. They were my brothers.”
For months, Lansky’s men effectively broke up one Nazi rally after another. American Nazi arms, legs, and ribs were broken, and skulls were cracked, but no one died. At one Brown Shirt rally in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, the stage was decorated with a swastika and a picture of Hitler ym”s. The speakers started ranting. There were only 15 of Lansky’s men, but they jumped into action, throwing people out of the windows, chasing and beating them up. Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. “We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults,” said Lansky.
In Minneapolis, William Dudley Pelley, a fascist political activist, organized a Silver Shirt Legion to “rescue” America from an imaginary Jewish-Communist conspiracy. When David Berman, the local gambling “Czar,” learned of a rally at a nearby lodge, he brought his men along. When Pelley called for all the Jews in the city to be expelled, Berman and his associates burst into the room and started cracking heads. After ten minutes, they emptied the hall. His suit stained with blood, Berman took the microphone and announced, “This is a warning. Anybody who says or does anything to harm Jews gets the same treatment. Only next time it will be worse.” After Berman broke up two more rallies, there were no more public fascist meetings in Minneapolis.